The Idiom

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Thursday, April 23, 2009


Ok, we're not sure if they're programmed to be gay. But we're sure that the geniuses that created these bionic creations could make 'em that way if they really wanted.

The bionic penguins can twist and turn almost as gracefully as their living counterparts because of the flexible glass fibre rods that control their heads. The fibres are arranged around the side of each penguin's head, while motors inside the body pull on one or more of them to twist the penguin's neck in any direction and guide the swimmer... [The design] has been adapted by Festo to make a flexible, trunk-like arm with a gripper on the end for use in industrial applications. The arm can twist up to 90° in any direction, giving it an unrivalled degree of dexterity.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ahoy! The Rundown on the Whole Pirate Thing...

First off, can someone tell The Kid what the FUCK Donald Payne was doing in Somalia? Christ, only in NJ.

Second, we'd like to give the Captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama a big Idiom thumbs up. Why? Because the most important, yet little noted, element of this entire drama has been that the Captain and crew did not sit idly by and leave themselves to the tender mercies of sea-borne thugs.

No, they ACTED. The crew of the Maersk Alabama repelled the initial attack with fire hoses. When the pirates returned a day later and successfully boarded the ship, the crew beat them back and actually captured one of them. Unfortunately, the Captain had been taken hostage and the pirates dragged hims back to a lifeboat and fled the scene. The crew tried to bargain for the Captain by exchanging the prisoner for him, but the pirates refused to release him after they got their man back. (Who would thought pirates would be so untrustworthy?)

But even though Captain Richard Phillips allowed himself to be taken to spare his crew, he did not passively succumb to his captors' will either. Once the USS Bainbridge showed up on the scene, Phillips threw himself overboard from the lifeboat in order to give the guys on the destroyer a chance to send the pirates to Davy Jones' Locker. TWICE.

Luckily by the second time, the go order had been given from DC, allowing navy SEALs to air out 3 of the 4 pirates.

What made this captain and crew different from the dozens of other ships raided in the past year? How are they differentiated from the 200 sailors still being held maritime scum?

It can be summed up in one sentence. They are Americans.

They acted in the truest American way. When faced with danger, they did not submissively abandon themselves to their fate. They stood up and decided to act. Perhaps they would be successful, perhaps they would be killed – but they would live or die as free men. As befits every American.

In this they are kindred spirits with those who stood up and acted on United 93. They too decided to live, and die, as free men.

So hats off to the Captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama. May your actions these past few days, against the first pirates to dare attack an American flagged vessel since Stephen Decatur cleaned the Bey of Algiers' clock 200 years ago, put all outlaws on notice that they approach Americans at their own peril.

Of course, like all tribal primitives, the pirates vow revenge.

"Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying," Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship anchored in the Somali town of Gaan

Yeah, we're quaking Abdullahi...

"From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them (the hostages)," Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old pirate, told the Associated Press from one of Somalia's piracy hubs, Eyl. "(U.S. forces have) become our No. 1 enemy." [...]
You know, having the U.S. as your #1 enemy – is a real DANGEROUS situation to be in Habeb. It seems as if Eyl is overdue for a tourist visit from some special operators.

Which brings up, what to do about this situation? Because as Steyn notes, we can be expecting a lot more of this.

Once upon a time we killed and captured pirates. Today, it’s all more complicated. The attorney general, Eric Holder, has declined to say whether the kidnappers of the American captain will be “brought to justice” by the U.S. “I’m not sure exactly what would happen next,” declares the chief law-enforcement official of the world’s superpower. But some things we can say for certain. Obviously, if the United States Navy hanged some eyepatched peglegged blackguard from the yardarm or made him walk the plank, pious senators would rise to denounce an America that no longer lived up to its highest ideals, and the network talking-heads would argue that Plankgate was recruiting more and more young men to the pirates’ cause, and judges would rule that pirates were entitled to the protections of the U.S. constitution and that their peglegs had to be replaced by high-tech prosthetic limbs at taxpayer expense.

John Keegan counsels a merciless campaign by the naval powers of the world to exterminate the vermin.

The problem is that not even the U.S. Navy can handle this. Because the pirates are not after cargo, but rather they are a sea-borne kidnapping ring. Back in the day, pirate vessels were large Men O' War, which had to be resupplied in ports and could be hunted down and sunk. These days, pirates pilot small fishing boats and claim their quarry with AK-47's and RPG's. The sea is just too big, and there are too many small boats out there to effectively police the situation.

The other idea? Arm the boats themselves. Kid Various sees a burgeoning market for Blackwater types, as Arthur Herman notes.

Crews of cargo vessels that enter Somali waters need to be trained to fight back (reports are that the crew and captain of Maersk Alabama all had anti-terrorist and anti-piracy training). If they need to shoot, let 'em shoot. If we have to bring in lawyers to alter international treaties, let them be changed to protect our ships and crews, not those who attack them.

An even more sensible idea is security contractors rotating among ships in dangerous waters as suggested by Steve Schippert. Hop on in the upper part of the Red Sea, hop off in Kenya.

The specific logistics for maximum efficiency can be a challenge, but the basics here are pretty simple - at least on paper. There is no need for the contracted maritime security team to be aboard the vessel outside demonstrated high-risk zones. That, currently, is the float around the Horn of Africa. It is surely possible to coordinate embark and debark points at the ends of that leg of a particular ship's journey. This can happen at a port of call or, most efficiently, via scheduled smaller craft along the way.

The US military has a presence in Djibouti, which can serve as a safe staging point for security teams before the vessel steams toward the Suez Canal. At the opposite end, the United States may assist the contracting organizations in coordinating cooperation with Kenya and a similar use of shoreline military installations for the same staging area purposes. Likewise, for ships steaming eastward, the United States can assist in gaining staging accommodations in Gulf States such as Oman or the United Arab Emirates. Yemen, while logical on a map, would surely be an untenable risky endeavor for such use.

Outfit the security teams with .50 cals and rocket launchers. Any ship getting too close get a warning, and then gets lit up.

Of course some people are a bit squeamish about dispensing justice on the high seas.

Journalist Bret Stephens asks “Why Don’t We Hang Pirates Anymore?” (op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, 25 November 2008). His answers:

  1. No controlling legal authority, providing a basis on which to fight, capture, try, and punish pirates.
  2. International law (e.g., the Law of the Sea Convention) makes action against pirates difficult.
  3. UN authorization is necessary for most effective actions against pirates, such as attacking their bases.

All of these things are true, but they secondary factors (discussed in the next chapter). The vast majority of articles about piracy concentrate on these minor things. This post will attempt a clearer and more comprehensive explanation.

But the reality is that until we adopt the policy below - we can expect more and more of this nonsense. That which is rewarded gets repeated...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Book Review

Thomas Barnett is a genuine grand strategist. His two previous books, “The Pentagon's New Map” and “A Blueprint for Action” have demonstrated that he is someone to be listened to in the world of post September 11 strategic thinking.

Central to his thesis is the concept that the main challenge facing the world in the 21st century will be integrating the areas of the globe that he calls the “non-integrating gap” with the “core.” This is also focus of this book, however he explicitly begins to outline what the post-Bush era will need in this regard.

I have to say that I agree with many of his precepts, including the notion that what we fundamentally lack is not a big war force, the military that he calls the Leviathan force, but rather what he calls a “SysAdmin” force. A military/civilian structure to fight irregular wars, perform stability ops and nation build.

This is currently at the heart of the Pentagon debates over what our force structure should look like in the next 10 years. Should we be gearing up for war with potential peer competitor like China? I agree with Barnett that this scenario is ludicrous and is damaging to the United States' needs in the post-September 11 strategic environment. Similarly, I agree that post September 11 strategy has been too focused on *political reform.* Specifically, spreading democratic institutions.

Barnett has a lot of interesting things to say and should be listened to very carefully. However I do disagree with him in several areas. I think he goes wrong fundamentally when he begins to argue that it is not political reform that is needed, but rather economic reform. That the gap countries need to be integrated in to the globalization system and that the U.S. and other core nations should focus on a strategy that looks to increase the linkages and communications flows necessary for that economic system to flourish.

I absolutely agree with Barnett that the most important strategic challenge facing the United States is integrating the gap with the core. I also agree that this is mostly an economic function. I essentially buy that what is needed is for the gap countries to become successful and to develop the linkages and communication necessary to develop the networks allow for that economic success. But where I think he goes wrong is that this economic integration must be preceded by *cultural* change. The inhabitants of the gap, what I would call traditional societies, want to keep their traditional culture and also be successful. *This is impossible.* They cannot be successful and retain the elements of their traditional culture that retard that growth.

Therefore, although I agree with Barnett's eventual end state goals, I think he is missing the cultural forest for the economic trees. Barnett is too dismissive of the role of culture in this regard. He thinks that with the establishment of the connectivity and the networks from the modern world into the pre-modern that economic success will follow, but in reality it is necessary for the traditional culture to begin to change first. Otherwise, the build out of that connectivity will fail. This does not mean the traditional culture must change all at once. However you *must* start an actual path to liberalization. And that liberalization cannot be economic without first engendering some cultural liberalization.

I also think that Barnett is too dismissive of the concept of a nuclear terror strike and its second order effects. Barnett seems to think that a nuclear strike is not likely at all and that we spend way too much time and effort on the issues surrounding this fear. I'm not so sanguine. Anyone who dismisses the significant possibility of a nuclear strike by the traditional culture on an American city is simply suffering a failure of imagination.

And more so is ignoring the second order effects. He is correct in that United States is the most successful political, monetary and cultural union in history of the planet. He is also correct in noting that we are exporting the system to the rest of the world and have been for two centuries. But there's no reason that a society has to continually move forward. Societies can also move backward. If Barnett thinks that we made rash mistakes in the aftermath of September 11, he will be absolutely horrified at the steps the United States takes after New York is destroyed in a nuclear terror strike. We will destroy, or rather we will disassemble, the connectivity and the networks which are so crucial to our success, which Barnett focuses on as the great engine of progress.

And that is where the critical problem lies. Barnett is more sanguine about this eventuality not only because he sees it as unlikely, but he has great faith in the ability of the American system/the globalization system to integrate traditional cultures. After all this is what we've been doing for the past 200 years. He notes, very perceptively, that we fought a very similar war to the one that we are fighting now in the mid-to late 19th century integrating the American West into the American system. After World War II we integrated about a third of the world into the system. Our record of success stands for itself.

The problem I see is that Barnett thinks we have all the time in the world for the gap countries to integrate with the core. The prospect of a nuclear terror strike on New York hinges on that assumption. I agree with Barnett that the connectivity and integration that he seeks is mostly a “pull” function. A demand side function. But I'm not convinced that we have so much time that we can ignore the need for a bit of a “push” function from our side.

The fact is that we are in a race to integrate the traditional culture into our system before it can do us so great damage that we ourselves dismantle that system. This is not idle speculation. The Realist has always thought that liberalization, be political, economic or cultural, will come in its own time. And Realist that I was, I bought this argument. After September 11, I came more around to the Neoconservative point of view. There are millions of people in this world who feel that their traditional culture is under threat of extinction, and actually they are *correct.* What's more, hundreds of thousands of them are willing to do anything, absolutely anything, to destroy that threat to their way of life. Given such realities, the fact that we cannot rely on any moral restraint on the part of our adversaries, we must seek to integrate the gap into the core as quickly as possible by any means available. We simply do not know how much time we have left.

For a look at Barnett's power point show (doesn't everyone have one these days?) take a look below:

Also take a listen to his series of interviews with Hugh Hewitt